Sustain sustainability: CEOs should start with why

What CEOs should do to help meet the UN’s sustainable development goals

Progress towards sustainable development is seriously off track’. This was the headline news on the United Nation’s web site in November. In addition, according to the insights drawn from 1,000 CEOs whose companies participated in Accenture’s recent CEO study on sustainability, ‘The world is not on track to deliver the global goals’, and ‘Business contribution to the global goals is not enough’. This includes the contribution of many of the companies that took part in the study. So, if sustainable development is so important, why have we ended up with this situation? What should be done differently to accelerate progress towards the United Nation’s 17 sustainable development goals to which so many countries have signed up? Will the CEOs’ calls to action really unlock a greater contribution from business – or should they be doing something different to increase the impact that businesses (especially those that they lead) have on achieving the goals by 2030?

No one can argue with the goals. For example, I’m sure everyone would subscribe to ending global poverty, addressing climate change and improving gender equality. It’s great that each goal has a measurable target too. But it’s often hard to see how the issues that the goals are addressing affect individual businesses – and affect the measures that are used to judge businesses’ performance, including the performance of CEOs. Without this direct linkage it’s hard to understand why businesses will make a bigger contribution.

Surely making a bigger contribution to the sustainable development goals will simply divert corporate resources away from meeting strategic objectives and risks affecting other performance measures that shareholders expect companies to meet? Clearly corporate executives need to have a good story to tell about sustainability. But CEOs’ primary responsibility is to ensure that the companies they lead meet or exceed shareholders’ expectations.

So how likely is it that the CEOs’ calls to action of raising ambition, collaborating to shape science-based solutions and personally leading to accelerate action will materialise or make a big difference? What’s needed is a clear argument or compelling rationale for individual companies to make a bigger contribution.

Anyone with experience of driving change in an organisation knows this. Exhortation will get you so far, but until everyone understands why a proposed course of action is being mandated – and its relevance to them and the business in which they work – progress is likely to be very slow. For example, as demand for fossil fuels softens because of the increasing availability of competitively priced, sustainable sources of energy, it’s relatively easy to understand why oil companies need to do something different. If they don’t, they risk being squeezed out of the market. So, it should be relatively easy to encourage at least some oil companies to adjust what they do so their businesses are sustained. But what’s really needed to instigate a bigger contribution from businesses is greater awareness of the implications of not responding the goals and the potential benefits of taking greater action on the performance of individual businesses.

So maybe business leaders should focus more of their attention on encouraging conversations in their businesses about the link between the sustainable development goals and the performance of their business, and less on exhorting everyone to do more. Until we have this clarity – and compelling cases for individual businesses to invest in actions that improve sustainability that are also in the interest of the business – we’re likely to see ever increasing calls for more to be done without a material change in the contribution that businesses make.

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